Radiant: The Life and Line of Keith Haring by Brad Gooch review – from the subway to the gift shop | Biography books

Radiant: The Life and Line of Keith Haring by Brad Gooch review – from the subway to the gift shop | Biography books

Keith Haring’s career began underground, but soon zoomed to stratospheric altitudes. His cartoons of irradiated babies, attributed to an anonymous scribbler known as Chalkman, began to crawl along the walls of New York subway stations in 1978. A few years later, now a household name, Haring was shuttling across the Atlantic by Concorde, commissioned to daub liberating slogans on the Berlin Wall, to paint gymnasts cavorting on a tower at a children’s hospital in Paris, and to decorate a Tuscan monastery with a crucified Christ who supports a lolloping dolphin on his bowed shoulders. A typical side trip took him to Monaco to receive an award from Princess Caroline. In his spare time he lucratively sketched a label for Absolut vodka, painted a BMW, and opened the Pop Shop to sell branded T-shirts in New York and Tokyo.

In 1990 Haring died, struck down by Aids at the age of 31. Among his regrets was his exclusion from the Museum of Modern Art’s galleries, where he thought he belonged with Klee and Léger. Classed as a scrawler of graffiti, he was confined to the gift store in the museum’s lobby, which did a brisk trade in the toddler-themed souvenirs he trademarked. Another unfulfilled ambition rankled: nearing death, he confided that he “really wanted to design a pair of sneakers”. And why not? As Brad Gooch points out, he often painted on the downtrodden Manhattan pavements that he shared with “the usual traffic of pimps, prostitutes, winos and junkies”; his art was street-smart, as twinkle-toed as his dancing marathons at gay discos on Saturday nights, when his sneakers sometimes made music because he accessorised them with ankle bells.

An Act Up poster by Keith Haring on the Lower East Side, New York, December 1989. Photograph: Rita Barros/Getty Images

Gooch’s biography treats Haring as a balding, bespectacled Peter Pan, a manchild who was much in demand as a godfather to the offspring of his friends. Babies are omnipresent in Haring’s iconography, but so are aroused penises, although he kept the two separate. Straining a little, he thought of sexual exploration as infantile play: when he arrived in New York, after growing up in a Pennsylvania suburb with the grim name of Kutztown, he celebrated the cruising turf of Christopher Street in Greenwich Village as “a gay Disneyland” and painted a priapic Mickey Mouse as one of its habitués.

Despite Haring’s endearing naivety, popularity corrupted him. Though Gooch is reluctant to make judgments, his language betrays invidious truths. At his best Haring was a nimble, spontaneous performer, dashing off ephemeral works as spectators marvelled at his fluency. Taken up by galleries, he scrambled to produce what Gooch calls “content” to fill those white cubes; in planning exhibitions he fretted about their “entertainment value” and measured success by the number of celebrities who limoed downtown to attend the opening. Haring’s ubiquity and his sudden wealth made the ungregarious Andy Warhol wince: in Warhol’s shrewd estimation, he was “an advertising agency unto himself”.

Gooch sees Haring becoming progressively more embattled, up in arms against Ronald Reagan’s nuclear swaggering and his refusal to acknowledge the menace of Aids. His imagery turned apocalyptic. “Red spray-paint bursts of energy” now exploded across his design. His cute monsters underwent sick mutations, with “a six-breasted computer-headed beast straddling the fuselage of a downed jet plane”. Frisky penises gave way to depictions of what Gooch calls “the demon sperm”, a black-horned insect hatched in the syringes of addicts or nesting in unprotected bodily cavities. But was this grotesquerie tragic or merely spooky? Gooch sabotages his own claims about Haring’s new seriousness by remarking that his last works look “as if Walt Disney were illustrating the Book of Revelation”. Banksy’s writing on walls can spell out maledictions; even in his panoramas of disaster, Haring was irrepressibly upbeat.

Gooch, who knew Haring slightly, treats him as an alter ego. Beginning as a fashion model, the young Gooch took part in the same nocturnal revels as Haring, and in 1996 he commemorated that era of unsafe sex in a novel cheekily entitled The Golden Age of Promiscuity. With the benefit of sober hindsight, this book was followed by a self-help treatise, Dating the Greek Gods, in which Gooch offered gay men “empowering spiritual messages on sex and love, creativity and wisdom”; the biography wishes the same aspirations on Haring, who was perhaps less high-minded than Gooch fancies. An evangelising “Jesus freak” in his adolescence, Haring later decided that acid trips were a more reliable way of seeing God and burbled that he opened his Pop Shop not to make money but as “a spirit thing really”.

Haring crowned the babies he painted with haloes, making them the “purest and most positive” symbols of existence, and he often lamented that he would never be a father. Gooch inhabits a more fortunate world. His book therefore concludes with a scene of domestic beatitude that Haring could hardly have imagined: Gooch and his husband introduce their young sons to Haring’s work, after which they retire to the connubial bed, where Gooch reads aloud from his manuscript. But the vignette is cosy rather than radiant, lacking the electric vitality of those jiving babies. Haring, who believed that art was a form of magic, said after his Aids diagnosis that he hoped “to heal myself by painting”. He failed, and Gooch fuzzily softens that sad outcome: nominating Haring as “forever a member of our family”, he chooses to emphasise his own happier ending.

Radiant: The Life and Line of Keith Haring by Brad Gooch is published by HarperCollins (£30). To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply

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